The game of darts has its next bull’s eye set on India.
The exacting pastime, often associated with western pub culture and smoke-filled bars, has been gaining momentum in the country, thanks to the efforts by the national governing body, All India Darts Association (AIDA), to widen its appeal, and existing Indian enthusiasts who are spreading the word.
Later this year, India plans to play host to the first-ever India Open, featuring about 60 of the world’s top amateur players—both men and women—throwing for a total prize money of Rs10 lakh.
“Darts is developing in India, as it’s a very social sport,” said Vivek Singh, joint managing director of leisure and sports marketing company Procam International. “There’s a male-female parity. The sport puts women on an equal platform with men; it has to be viewed in this context.”
India may not have indoor stadiums filled with frenzied spectators watching darts tournaments, as happens in the darts-crazy UK, which is believed to have more than one lakh practitioners of the sport. But, as Singh would have it, and as anecdotal evidence shows, a quiet movement is developing here.
The sport faces an uphill climb in India where there is a surge in more upscale bars and lounges rather than pubs. Even the actual infrastructure of the sport is weak; Indian-made dart boards tend to break easily, players say. And as all sports promoters seeking to win over the growing middle class have found, sponsorships will be key, and rare.
Still, 15 of India’s 28 states have administrative set-ups affiliated to the Kolkata-based governing body of the game, AIDA, set up in 2001. Two more—Kerala and Puducherry—have recently been made members, and will participate in the fifth nationals this June.
More than 10,000 enthusiasts are registered with AIDA, with as many as 65% of them believed to be under 18 years of age.
But, isn’t the game, how shall we put it, boring?
“Boring?” asks India’s top darts player, Ashfaque Sayed, who was practising in Pune, even though it was midnight when a reporter called him for a telephone interview. “Try standing in front of the board for five hours, aiming, concentrating… It’s enchanting... I am hooked.”
It is this kind of fan following that makes the UK darts historian Patrick Chaplin proclaim India as the next darts hub. “In my opinion, the developments in India are beginning to indicate the potential for a massive market,” wrote Chaplin in an email interview.
The sport’s international governing body, the World Darts Federation (WDF),definitely thinks so.
The federation granted India membership in 2004, three years after AIDA was set up.
The UK-based Harrows Darts Co. believes the growth of the economy and middle-class sport enthusiasts will lead to the commercial expansion of the sport. “India is certainly on our wish list,” marketing director Robert Pringle said.
But what could provide the biggest fillip to the sport in India, leading to a possible World Cup in future, is the interest shown by television channels.
The Dubai-based broadcaster Ten Sports has begun negotiations with AIDA to telecast the four regional tournaments followed by the national championship. A deal could be struck in the next few weeks, according to multiple people with knowledge of these negotiations.
AIDA secretary general Prasanta Saha only confirms that negotiations were on with “one international sports channel.” Ten Sports executive director Peter Hutton confirmed the talks, though he, too, would not give details.
“We are looking at extending the success of our international darts coverage by becoming involved with the sport in India,” he said.
Hutton is hopeful of a ready audience in the country; he described the response among Indian fans to the ongoing professional Premier League, in the UK, as “phenomenal”.
If the talks work out, one stakeholder that would be the happiest is WDF secretary general Ollie Croft, who wants AIDA to contact TV channels to suggest darts tournaments. In his reckoning, if Indian officials dream of staging a future WDF World Cup with top players from its 63 member-nations competing, they first had to rope in the television channels. And it ought to be the same with all tournaments played in India, Croft said.
AIDA has grown since its inception six years ago—it has reached out to schools across the country, tapping kids in search of future stars; organized four national championships, each costing around Rs6 lakh; sent top players to Australia for the previous World Cup in 2005; almost finalized the first India Open at a cost of Rs15 lakh and now is on the brink of signing a deal with a sports broadcaster.
Also on the cards are two major international tournaments—the Southeast Asia Cup and the Asia Cup. “But everything depends on finding sponsors,” said AIDA’s Saha.
Every new sport’s success in India, it seems, boils down to this: finding sponsors. Saha says AIDA hasn’t received any funding from the government and resources have to be found internally.
Overseas, manufacturers have helped out at times—Harrows Darts has donated about 200 dartboards to the association, costing about Rs3 lakh. These have been distributed among schools, colleges, clubs and corporate houses free of cost to promote the sports.
Champion player Sayed’s equipment is similarly provided by Puma Darts and dartboards of New Zealand; once every three years, he will get 20 sets of flights and shafts (the darts), as well as dartboards that cost Rs5,000. Indian ones, which cost Rs500, break constantly in practice, he says.
Sayed, a biomedical engineer whose business is supplying medical gas piping to hospitals, participated in the 2005 World Cup, which cost him around Rs2 lakh.
However, he concedes he didn’t feel the pinch so much, as he and darts-playing wife Ayesha have won about Rs1.5 lakh in prize money, which offset a large part of his expenditures. But there are others who aren’t as fortunate; many ranked players had to opt out of the World Cup for want of funds and sponsors.
Chaplin says for darts to become popular, one doesn’t need a pub culture, as has been proved by Iran—an Islamic state where drinking is officially banned—which boasts over five lakh players. Ways must be found to sell the game to the people, he said.
Procam’s Singh went a step further. “Make darts glamorous,” is his mantra.
Singh should know. A few years ago, Procam organized darts tournaments sponsored by alcohol maker Shaw Wallace in the clubs across India, a marketing initiative for the Haywards 5000 beer brand that unearthed Sayed.
But since the acquisition of Shaw Wallace’s beer brands by SABMiller India in 2003, no major brand has come forward.
“Indians have done exceedingly well in archery and shooting, there’s no reason why they will not suceed with darts,” Singh said.